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“ASCI’s goal is to promote self regulation and keep regulatory body away”: Narendra Ambwani

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We are in an era where advertising is redefining itself every second day, where regulations are questioned on the basis of its relevance in current scenario every hour and a new advertisement is released across various platforms every second in some part of the country. In a scenario like this, a nonprofit organization- Advertisement Standards Council of India (ASCI), which builds on the philosophy of self-regulation, examines thousands of complaints from various sources and at the same time makes efforts to empower advertising aspirants with various initiatives.

An organization in existence since 1985, ASCI got recognition from the government of India Consumer’s Affairs Department in 2015, which ASCI chairman Narendra Ambwani terms as one of the biggest feat achieved so far.

In conversation with Indiantelevision.com’s Anirban Roy Choudhury, Ambwani points out the importance of keeping a regulatory body away from the advertising fraternity. He feels that the only way one could do so is by promoting self regulation, which is the major reason why ASCI is endeavoring more in spreading awareness and empowering the fraternity by educating them.     

Excerpts:

What are the steps being taken by ASCI to educate ad makers in order to ensure that no derogatory work is done?

We came up with the e-learning prospect, where people can enroll at a very low rate (Rs 500 for students, Rs 1000 for individuals). We didn’t keep it free because we need some money to upgrade the website and maintain a good workflow and that’s why we kept the minimal fees, and it’s not at all a profit making initiative. This consists of 13 modules on advertising, which has various chapters based on the advertising course. Each and every chapter is introduced by prominent figures of Indian advertising history, which includes Sam Balsara, Piyush Pandey and others and then we have examples defining the code and conduct.

Suppose the chapter is about making unsubstantiated claims, with examples we will show that the claims made weren’t substantiated enough and hence it was challenged. At the end of the chapter there will be a quick test, which one has to undergo in order to prove that he or she has understood the chapter. The entire course is executed with the help of enhanced online technology and though it is not physically interactive, it is very much technically interactive. On a successful completion, one will get marks and a certificate from ASCI.

What is the duration of the course and who all can enroll for it?

The course can be pursued by anyone interested and can be undertaken at his or her own pace. The one time registration is valid for six months and one can do it any time till the registration is valid. It requires about four hours of work and if someone is focused, they can finish it in the given timeframe. The main idea behind the entire course is to educate people so that every ad is made by following the code and conducts so that we don’t have to challenge any. Every ad is made after putting a lot of efforts and money, and after a complain comes, if the ad has to be removed or modified, it upsets the entire schedule and hence why not create something that is right the first time round.

Will there be any marketing activity to promote the e- learning innovation?

We are promoting the initiative; in fact we have already started to do it through our members. We have around 350 members from the entire advertising fraternity, which includes agencies as well as consultancies. Our members are being mailed and at the same time we are asking them to inform people about the initiative in their respective organisations. Apart from that, we are also undertaking some activity at the school level where advertising is taught. We are requesting the authorities to enroll their students so that they understand the ASCI codes before they pass out. We are also very much active in the social media space.

Will lessons on new age advertising also feature in the modules?

The lessons will make people aware about code and conduct of advertising across all mediums whether it is digital, print or outdoor. The principles on the basis of which the ASCI codes are structured are uniform across all the platforms and hence the lessons are equally relevant throughout different parabolas.

Apart from the e-learning initiatives, what are the other attempts ASCI has made so far or is planning to execute in the near future?

In March, we had organised a conference where we invited marketing folks to participate. We took the opportunity to promote self-regulation and people of high repute from the advertising industry came in and spoke about it. That was one of our ways to promote ASCI and its code of conducts.

How does the ASCI mechanism work?

ASCI is not a regulatory body. We don’t decide if an ad should be made or not or if it is right or wrong. If any individual or company finds an ad offensive or derogatory, they can register a complaint. We have an independent panel, which is called the Consumer Complaints Council (CCC), which has two divisions. One has 14 members while the other has 21. The majority is from civil society, which includes professors of IIT, people from the medical field and journalists. So overall, it’s a wide mix of people from various fields. Once the complaint comes, we verify it. It has to be credible and not anonymous and the complainer’s details should be available with the secretariat. The complaint has to be for a current advertisement and not for an ad that was aired a year ago. Once the complaint is verified and the objections are examined, we give a week’s time to the advertiser to respond. Once the response comes, we send the ad to the technical expert. For example, if an ad says that a product will make hair 10 times stronger, the technical expert examines if the claims are substantiated. After the technical committee analysis is received, the complaint is brought to the weekly CCC meeting. The CCC then decides if the complaint should be upheld or not.

What happens after the complaint is upheld?

After the complaint is upheld, we write to the advertiser that the complaint is substantiated and that the board found issues in their ad. We tell them that they need to modify their ad rectifying the concerned issue. After that we give them two weeks’ time to implement the changes. In almost 90 per cent of the cases, advertisers comply with the guidelines and remove the concerned parts.

The mechanism takes three weeks minimum to come to a conclusion, if not more. For that period does the ad stay on air?

Yes, the ad stays on air for that span of time. Three weeks is the minimum time required to complete the due process and we need to undergo the process. In case an ad is extremely derogatory and we feel it is truly offensive, we have a system called Suspended Pending Investigation (SPI), which we impose. However, that happens very rarely. ASCI chairman heads SPI. The chairman shares the said offensive ad with CCC members and asks for an immediate suggestion. After the suggestion is received, if the members feel that the ad needs to be brought down immediately, we write to the advertisers to hold the ad till the investigation process is concluded.

What have been the major challenges in front of ASCI?

The major challenge was to make people aware about ASCI. Social media played a vital role and the website also helped us. Earlier people had to fill a form and send it to us through post but with the website in place, we have now started receiving a lot of complaints. Last year, we got around 6000 complaints. So the more people connect with us, the better it is for us. That’s the major challenge at hand.

Apart from that, there are a few rouge advertisers, who do not comply with any code of conduct and often they fail to respond to ASCI too. They put their ads late night making unsubstantiated claims promising Dhan Laxmi or Sukh Shanti and people going through stress often fall into their trap. Getting them off is the other major challenge that we have at hand.

Recently ASCI signed an MoU with the Indiam Government’s Department of Consumer Affairs. Can you throw some light on the development?

The MoU with the Department of Consumer Affairs states that any complaint received by the government will be dealt by ASCI. Additionally, we will also endeavour into joint promotional activities, which is a major boost for us. Getting recognition from the government and being asked to deal with complaints is a huge step forward. It signifies that the philosophy of self-regulation is making strong statements across all levels. It has been great working with the new government as it has been very cooperative so far.

ASCI’s procedures, which also involve scientific research, may turn out to be very expensive at times. How is the organisation funded?

The funding of ASCI is through its members. We have approximately 350 members from the industry who contribute. That’s where the major funding comes from. Apart from that, we raise funds from various initiatives like conferences, training etc. Overall, it’s a tight budget and as we all know ASCI is a non-profit organization. We are like any other NGO. It’s just that we are an industry NGO.

As you said the major portion of the funds are raised through members who apparently are also involved in the advertising industry. If an ad from their company comes up for adjudication, will ASCI take it to CCC?

Of course we will. In fact most of the complaints are against our members’ company because the members represent 90 per cent of the advertising fraternity. ASCI looks into each and every case without a bias. In fact, there is a rule that if either complainant or advertiser against whom the complaint is from the CCC, he or she will not take part in the adjudication process of that particular case. So there are no possibilities of partiality or vested interest when it comes to the adjudication of any case.

Going forward, what are ASCI’s strategies and goals?

We have many strategies to ASCI’s credit. We achieved the government’s recognition on the aspect of self-regulation and the possibilities of a regulatory body to regulate advertisement, which none of us wanted, is dimming gradually. We are launching an app to ensure more and more reach, getting more and more people enrolled in our e-learning initiative is a major task at hand currently and we are building strategies around it.

While I speak about goals, we only have one goal and that is to prevail our philosophy, which is fairness, responsibility, decency, honesty and truthfulness and conscience in advertising. The day ASCI will empower every advertiser with the code and conduct awareness to a level that the CCC fails to find one guilty party will be the best day for ASCI and that’s the only goal.

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